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Literature / The Institute

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The Institute is a 2019 novel written by Stephen King.

Tim Jamieson leaves Florida and travels to the fictional small town of DuPray, South Carolina. A decorated former cop, Jamieson takes a job working for the local police department as a "night knocker".

In suburban Minneapolis, intruders silently murder twelve-year-old Luke Ellis' parents and kidnap him. He wakes up in a room identical to his own at the Institute, a facility located deep in the woods of Maine.

At the Institute are other kidnapped kids with special talents—telekinesis and telepathy—who live in rooms of their own. Nick, George, Iris, and ten-year-old Avery Dixon are all in Front Half while others graduated to Back Half. Mrs. Sigsby, the institute's director, and her staff are dedicated to extracting the special talents from the children. As each new victim disappears to Back Half, Luke becomes more and more desperate to get out and get help before the same fate befalls him.

This novel provides examples of:

  • Accidental Murder: Harry Cross accidentally kills Greta Wilcox when the last test he received sends him into a seizure, and he knocks her against a wall, breaking her neck.
  • Aliens in Cardiff: Par for the course for King, the Institute is located in a more remote part of Maine. Justified, as the Institute wants to avoid attracting attention from the outside.
  • All Girls Want Bad Boys: All girls in the Institute at the time Luke arrives there have eyes for Nick Wilholm, by far the most rebellious kid at the Institute (described as a latter-day James Dean), particularly Kalisha.
  • Always Identical Twins: Gerda and Greta Wilcox are identical in every way.
  • Armor-Piercing Question: Occurs when Luke calls out "Mr. Smith" on the reliability of the precogs' predictions and whether or not the Institute is actually saving the world in using up the lives of thousands of children. "Mr. Smith" leaves flustered and unsure of himself.
  • Artistic Licence - Geography: The various Institutes around the world are supposedly all in remote locations, just like the one in Maine. The Dutch branch, however, is located on the island of Pampus, which in reality is a popular tourist attraction.
  • Ass Shove: One of the "treatments" at the Institute is a mandatory rectal thermometer exam, used to humiliate the children and show them how powerless they are.
  • Better to Die than Be Killed: Maureen hangs herself so that the Institute can’t torture Luke’s location out of her. Plus, she was already terminally ill and probably didn't have much longer to live, so dying this way was most likely preferable. And while it is not explicitly stated, she may have done it to buy Luke more time, since the staff would be too busy handling the aftermath of her suicide to notice a child had escaped.
  • Big Bad: Mrs Julia Sigsby, the woman in charge of the Institute who is responsible for their kidnappings and views them all as her property.
  • The Big Guy: Harry Cross, a 16 year old who easily towers over the other kids and is quite strong for his age.
  • Bittersweet Ending: Luke, Kalisha, Nick, and some of the other kids have escaped, and the Institute has been destroyed. However, the people behind it, though not planning to come after those specific kids, are still at large, and planning to rebuild, though Tim notes that getting such an operation up and running in the modern day, instead of coasting along from an earlier time, will be difficult. Also, even though the accuracy of the precogs is in doubt, they only need to be correct (long-range) one time when nothing is done due to the destruction of the Institute, and The End of the World as We Know It could occur.
  • Blatant Lies: The children are told that their stay will only last a few weeks and that they will be eventually returned to the parents with their minds wiped. In truth, their parents are dead and they are never getting out.
  • Bluff the Eavesdropper: The rooms in Front Half are filled with hidden microphones. There are some supposed dead zones, but most of these are false, and even the one that might be genuine (near the ice machine) is not considered entirely safe. Thus, when Maureen needs to give Luke his instructions on how to escape, the two of them, and Avery, go to such a dead zone and hold a conversation about what happened with Harry and Greta, see Accidental Murder above, but while they talk Maureen mentally gives Avery the instructions, and he passes them on to Luke.
  • Bystander Syndrome:
    • Sheriff John has little sympathy for the bystander that got injured due to Tim's warning shot (see Collateral Damage below), since he correctly deduces the guy was staying around to film the altercation instead of doing the sensible thing and run.
    • Notably averted during the gunfight between the DuPray police and the soldiers of the Institute. First Orphan Annie spots them, and ropes in Drummer Denton, who has several guns, to help fight them off, and soon they are joined by other citizens with their firearms. It is because of this intervention that the protagonists eventually come out on top, even though five police officers are killed in the fight.
  • Canon Welding: Orphan Annie mentions the mysterious disappearance of the population of Jerusalem’s Lot and blames it on the government.
  • Cassandra Truth: Luke has a lot of trouble convincing Tim and his fellow officers that the Institute is real. He expected as much, since it does sound farfetched, but it still annoys him that he gets treated like he's insane because of it.
  • The Conspiracy: Deconstructed, in that it is shown just how difficult it is to run a secret government project that commits atrocities.
    • The Institute has a small staff, with a counter-productive proportion of unbalanced sadists, because it is difficult to recruit people who would go along with the torture of children.
    • The Institute's physical and digital infrastructure are outdated and degrading, because it's next to impossible to hire contractors with the necessary skills to renovate/upgrade the place, and still keep the project secret.
  • Collateral Damage: Tim was forced to resign from his previous police job when, during a confrontation with an armed and intoxicated teen, he fired a warning shot, but the bullet ended up knocking down a lamp from the ceiling, which then fell on top of a bystander, seriously injuring the guy.
  • Continuity Nod:
    • The sixth and seventh installments of The Dark Tower have a subplot about rescuing a group of kidnapped psychic kids from a building.
    • Orphan Annie talks about how her psychic aunt didn't allow her sons to go to a marijuana party because she predicted something bad would happen there, thus saving them from a fire that killed 20 people. This is a nod to Vern's death in Different Seasons.
  • Cool Old Lady: A villainous example: Rosalind Dawson, Mrs. Sigsby's assistant. She's 81, yet good enough with a gun to have earned the equivalent of a Distinguished Marksman badge. She volunteers to help defend the Institute and rescue Mrs. Sigsby from Tim and Luke.
  • Covert Group with Mundane Front: To the general public, the Institute covers as a company called "Maine Paper Industries". Played with, in that the characters note that locals would be smart enough to realise that there is some kind of military base at the Institute, but they would never believe what it does.
  • Dead Man's Switch:
    • When Tim and Luke are about to return to the Institute with Mrs. Sigsby and Dr. Evans as their prisoners, they leave Wendy (the only other police officer who knows about the Institute and survived the gunfight at the DuPray police office) in a motel, with a list of the names and home locations of all the children currently kept in the Institute. If Luke and Tim fail to contact her, she has to pass these names on to the state police and FBI so hopefully they will start an investigation that will uncover the Institute.
    • At the end of the story, when the rescued kids are send off to live with other relatives, they each take with them a key to a bank deposit box that contains the flashdrive (see McGuffin below). If anything happens to one of them, the others will unlock the box and reveal the contents of the flashdrive.
  • Deadly Gas: Stackhouse's plan to get rid of the kids at the Institute is to have Gladys mix bleach and drain cleaner to produce chlorine gas and vent it into the building's HVAC system. It fails when Avery and the Ward A kids use their powers to demolish the Institute building, dying in the process, and the rest of the former Front Half kids escape.
  • The Dreaded: "Mr. Smith", the man whom Mrs. Sigsby and Stackhouse answer to. When Luke has escaped, they try to put off calling him as long as possible, even though he could easily provide them with much better resources for tracking Luke down, out of fear of what he might do to them for this slip-up. Later lampshaded by Tim during his talk with "Mr. Smith", when he thinks to himself how Sigsby allowed the situation to get so out of control because she was afraid to inform "Smith" of what had happened.
  • Dream Reality Check: When Luke first wakes up in the Institute and realizes he is not in his room, he comes close to pinching himself to make sure he's not dreaming, but concludes that would be a cliché. He pops his fingers against his cheeks instead.
  • Dream Sequence: After their attempted mutiny ends with the kids from Back Half trapped in the tunnel between Back Half and Front Half, all of them share a dream in which they come across a series of ringing telephones, each one bigger than the previous, and when they answer them, all they hear is a boy or girl asking "Hello, do you hear me" in various languages. This is how they contact the children in the other Institutes worldwide.
  • Driven to Madness: It's heavily implied, and later outright stated, that Dr. Everett Hallas and Dr. Joanne James's work in Back Half has driven them insane. When Dr. Hallas is in the crematorium and further away from the psychic children, he loses some of his tics: he stands upright, he stops holding his finger to his mouth, and he makes fewer jokes.
  • Dual Wielding: Orphan Annie wields two guns simultaneously during the shoot-out at the DuPray police station.
  • Enhanced Interrogation Techniques: In the phone video left on the flash drive given to Luke, Maureen says that she was ex-military and worked in enhanced interrogation, eventually transitioning to working as the "good cop" role who could get reticent captives to talk by being nice to them.
  • Enigmatic Institute: Said institute is a secretive organization in Maine that kidnaps children who are telepathic and/or telekinetic. The children are experimented on by the staff to draw out and enhance their abilities so that they can be used to assassinate political and military enemies. It turns out that there are Institutes all over the world kidnapping and using children as weapons.
  • First-Name Basis: In conversation, Mrs. Sigsby and Stackhouse call each other "Julia" and "Trevor" respectively. Mrs. Sigsby notes that Stackhouse is the only one in the Institute who is allowed to use her first name.
  • Former Regime Personnel: Nearly all staff members of the Institute have a history with the military; one of the cleaners toured in the Middle East.
  • Gilded Cage: The front half of The Institute is really quite pleasant: each child gets their own room, made up to look like their actual bedroom back home, and the cafeteria has a very impressive menu. There's a playground open 24 hours a day and a full range of vending machines stocked with any kind of junk food a child might want (also alcohol and cigarettes, for an added creepiness factor). The back half is decidedly less pleasant, and Gorky Town (the back half of the back half, where kids go once their minds have been totally destroyed) is basically Bedlam.
  • Greater-Scope Villain: “William Smith,” the person whom Sigsby and Stackhouse answer to and who is also in charge of other Institutes throughout the world who wants to use people with precognitive abilities to influence world events.
  • Groin Attack: When Avery is being tortured by being shocked with a "zap stick" for Luke's actual whereabouts, the last thing he's threatened with is a full-charge shock to his scrotum. Fear of this causes him to break, although he doesn't completely tell the truth and the deception isn't discovered until later.
  • The Guards Must Be Crazy: Security at the Institute is quite sloppy at times, and Luke happily exploits this for planning his escape.
    • Among other things, they don't maintain the security camera's near the kids' rooms and playground, and while the cameras on the lower levels of front half are maintained, it's obvious hardly anyone ever monitors them (Luke visits these floors a few times unsupervised, and nobody stops him).
    • Luke finds a misplaced elevator card that allows him to use the elevator for every floor in Front Half except the lowest two.
    • The ground on both sides of the fence of the playground is unpaved, allowing Luke to tunnel underneath it.
    • The Foundation don't monitor Luke's laptop enough to notice he has found a way to go around their blocks to visit forbidden websites.
    • Justified, in that the prisoners in the Institute are kids who, any TP or TK powers aside, are still very much children and thus not expected to come up with complex escape plans. Luke however is a Child Prodigy. Also, Mrs. Sigsby realizes, eventually, things have gone smoothly for so long everybody, herself included, simply got lax. She vows to make some changes after Maureen killed herself.
  • Hand Signals: During the climactic confrontation at the Institute, Stackhouse gives a hand signal as the cue for the remaining staff to start shooting at the vehicle Tim, Luke, and Mrs. Sigsby are in. It also serves, in a roundabout way, as Gladys' signal to gas the kids in Back Half, as the shooting is her cue to mix the chemicals.
  • Heel–Face Turn: Maureen, after Luke helps her find a way to get rid of the high debts her ex-husband left her with, and because she is terminally ill, so she doesn't have much to lose.
  • Heroic BSoD: Luke undergoes one after finding out his parents were murdered. He remains in a daze for several weeks, not making many attempts to further his escape plans. Only after the incident with Harry and Greta (see Accidental Murder above) that ends with both of them dead does he snap out of it.
  • Heroic Sacrifice: Avery and the Ward A kids are killed when they stay behind to unite their mental powers with those of the kids in the other Institutes all over the world, and bring the whole building down.
  • Human Resources: For decades the Institute's goal is to use a small group of precogs to foresee individuals who will help cause events of global devastation (though their accuracy is later pointed out to be debatable), then kidnapping and experimenting on children to boost and pool their TK and TP abilities, allowing the disposing of said individuals. Ultimately, this all results in the children's mental faculties deteriorating, until they are empty husks with severe dementia or Alzheimer's disease, who get sent to the nightmarish "Gorky Park" until their health ultimately fades. The bodies then get sent to the crematorium, and so more children are needed...
  • Karma Houdini:
    • "Mr. Smith". Sure, his organization's operation of the Institutes is destroyed and he gets told off by Luke and the others during their meeting at the end of the novel. But he still walks away from it unscathed (except for his pride, probably), threatens the children to keep their silence and openly proclaims his intention to rebuild the Institutes. Annie does suggest killing him, but Luke notes that he's ultimately just a pointman for other Institute higher-ups, so it wouldn't accomplish a great deal. Luke predicts that the Institutes will have a considerably more difficult time restarting, and possibly fail.
    • Stackhouse, possibly. We last see him despondent but unhurt after the Institute's destruction. Stackhouse in his POV chapters expects that "Smith" will have him killed for such a failure, though.
  • Kick the Dog: Almost the entire staff of the Institute get moments of this with the children, with Maureen being the notable exception.
  • Kiddie Kid: Avery Dixon. He's ten, but he both looks and acts at least several years below that age (in his first scene he throws a tantrum like a toddler, his room has posters of Tommy Pickles and Zuko, and he wears a Star Wars pyjama. Lampshaded by the other kids, with Kalisha theorizing that it's because Avery is a very powerful telepath, meaning he could live a pretty sheltered life and never had to learn social skills needed to pick up cues (like judging what people say by their expression and tone of voice).
  • The Kindness of Strangers:
    • Ms. Kellerman, the librarian whom Tim hitches a ride with. Actually lampshaded by Tim himself when she offers him some cash.
    • Mattie, the train worker who doesn't rat out Luke and provides him with some much needed food and water.
  • Lack of Empathy: Most of the Institute staff are largely desensitized to the horrors that they inflict on the children, with some occasional combination of outright sociopathy and/or genuine belief that they are saving the world. Mrs. Sigsby particularly calls Luke and the other kids during the recapture mission nothing but "property", which makes it immensely satisfying when she starts panicking when taken by Tim on the return trip, as she knows that Stackhouse views her as ultimately expendable.
    [Priscilla slaps Luke when he refuses to comply with an instruction]
    He looked at Priscilla and saw no hesitation. No regret. Zero empathy. Nothing. Luke realized he wasn’t a child at all to her. She had made some crucial separation in her mind. He was a test subject. You made it do what you wanted, and if it didn’t you administered what the psychologists called negative reinforce­ment.
  • Les Collaborateurs: Frieda, a girl at the institute who came from an abusive home (her mom is a drug addict and has one bad boyfriend after another). After Luke's escape, and learning from Avery where Luke has gone, she sells this information to Mrs. Sigsby and Stackhouse in return for not being tested on anymore, and being allowed to stay at the Institute in front half and, in time, become a caretaker there.
  • Lies, Damned Lies, and Statistics: Brought up by Tim in his discussion with "Mr. Smith", as he points out how statistics can be used to prove everything you want.
  • McGuffin: The flashdrive Maureen gave Luke just before his escape, which contains a video of Maureen confessing her part in the Institute, and footage of Ward A and the children kept there.
  • Mind over Matter: One of the two possible powers of the children in the institute. They are called "TKs" by the Institute, and are further divided into those that can use their powers on purpose (TK-positive) and those that can only use it involuntarily (pinks). TKs' powers are unimpressive at a baseline: George is the strongest, and he can knock over chess pieces or move bugs. Greater feats of TK are possible when the Institute children pool their powers as a Hive Mind. Under Avery's leadership they manage to lift the entirety of Back Half and drop it on Front Half.
  • Mock Surprise Reaction: Basically Tim's reaction when "Mr. Smith" tells him that the first institute was in Nazi Germany.
  • The Mole: The Institute has stringers planted all across the US to inform them of kids who could make for potential subjects and people who are asking too many questions and need to be eliminated. One such plant, the manager of the hotel Tim is staying at in DuPray, helps the Institute track down Luke.
  • Mr. Smith: The man with the lisp introduces himself to Tim as "William Smith".
  • Nice Job Breaking It, Hero: The day after Luke's escape, Avery attempts to cover the hole under the fence Luke escaped through, but is caught in the act, and as such the Institute's staff is alerted to the escape. Mrs. Sigsby even tells Avery that, had he left the hole alone, it would have taken them much longer to realize there has been an escape.
  • Nice Job Fixing It, Villain:
    • The Institute puts tracking chips in the kids' earlobes so they can find them if they run or hide. They don't anticipate one of the kids (Luke) having the guts to cut their earlobe off to get rid of the tracker, however. And when Luke is discovered on the train by one of the workers, the worker decides not to reveal his presence, even though he's been told to be on the lookout for a runaway kid, because the bloody ear allows Luke to tell him a story about escaping from an abusive guardian, with the injury making the story look really convincing.
    • As a punishment for his part in Luke's escape, Avery is send to the immersion tank (which is normally only for pinks) and then straight to Back Half. Dr. Hendricks disapproves since Avery is a rare, very strong TP, but Stackhouse and Sigsby insist. However, the experience even further enhances Avery's powers, and this helps him and the other kids in Back Half to start a mutiny.
    • Overall, the Institute kidnapping Luke merely for his small TK (which he can't even control consciously), while disregarding the fact he is a Child Prodigy. "Mr. Smith" actually points out to Tim in the climax how everybody involved with the Institutes now wishes they had left him alone.
  • No-Sell: During their revolt, the children try to use their collective powers to influence the staff of the Institute. It fails since they can only influence unprepared minds: the staff knows about them and what to expect.
  • One Person, One Power: As a rule, the gifted children are either TP or TK, but never both. Dr. Hendricks is convinced that he can wake up latent TP powers in a TK, and tries this with Luke. It seemingly fails, and he is told afterwards to quit these experiments since they've failed to yield results, and cost the Institute several children before they could go to Back Half. Averted when it's revealed that the experiment actually worked on Luke, and he's now a TP as well as a TK.
  • Pillow Silencer: Played with; the agents send to kidnap Luke and kill his parents already have guns with silencers, but Robin, the agent who kills Luke's dad Herb, still covers his head with a pillow first. Not as an extra precaution, but so she doesn't have to see the end result.
  • Please Put Some Clothes On: Luke always sleeps in his undies. When he wakes up one morning and finds that Avery (who sleeps with him almost every night) is gone, he runs to Avery's room to check if the boy is still in Front Half, but forgets to dress first. Winona, one of the housekeepers, catches him in the act and orders him to get dressed.
    Winona: Put on some clothes, young man. I'm not interested in seeing any male in his undies unless he's at least twenty-two and buffed out.
  • Recruit the Muggles: As the sheriff’s department gets shot up by black ops thugs, just about every local (or the parents of younger ones) who the main character befriended earlier show up to provide some lethal assistance.
  • Redemption Equals Death: Maureen, though she was dying of cancer anyway.
  • The Reveal: In the climax, it is revealed there are Institutes like the one in Maine all over the world, including Italy, Germany, Bosnia, The Netherlands, and South Korea.
  • Revenge Before Reason: Discussed. Luke correctly guesses that Stackhouse has an escape plan for himself in case the Institute is ever discovered, but counts on it that he won't use it yet (despite knowing that Luke has found allies whom he informed about the Institute, and who are now on their way there with him), since Stackhouse wants revenge on Luke for all the trouble the boy has caused. Tim agrees with this theory:
    Tim: Revenge is a powerful motivator, and this Stackhouse wouldn't be the first to ignore his own best interests in an effort to get it.
  • Seers: According to "Mr. Smith", there is a group of six precognitive people in a different kind of Institute somewhere in the world, who can see into the future to determine which people to eliminate to keep the world from nuclear destruction. Their effectiveness is called into question by Luke, who actually researched the topic and uses math to point out how the chance of a precognition actually coming true significantly decreases the further into the future the foreseen event will take place, similar to how statisticians' predictions can decrease in accuracy. The seers are only tested with events that happen mere hours to mere days from now, but are then asked to predict things that will happen years to even decades away.
  • School for Scheming: The titular institute.
  • Shout-Out: Gerda and Greta remind Luke of the twins in some old horror movie.
  • Smart People Play Chess: On his first day in the Institute, Luke is challenged to a chess game by Nick Wilholm, who claims none of the other kids were able to give him a challenge. Luke beats him with a scholar's mate (4 moves), even though he isn't fully focused on the game. He plays chess with other kids as well and always beats them until he gets bored with it and starts playing to lose, which is more of a challenge for him. Later, Stackhouse actually calls Luke a chess player because he is sneaky. In the climax, Luke himself also compares the situation he and Tim are in as part of a chess game he is playing against Stackhouse.
  • Speech Impediment: The person Mrs. Sigsby reports to has a lisp. In his conversation with Tim and Luke, he mentions being in speech therapy, and the lisp is transcribed in dialogue only when he slips up. This is most noticeable when he grows more agitated and emotional as the conversation progresses.
  • Telepathy: One of the two possible powers of the children in the institute. They are called "TPs" by the Institute.
  • Time Skip: A three month time skip happens near the end of the story, between the destruction of the Institute and "Mr. Smith" seeking Tim out.
  • Torture Always Works: Downplayed; after Mrs. Sigsby realizes Avery was in on Luke's plan and knows where he is, she has the boy tortured with the zap sticks until he spills his guts. But while Avery tells her the truth about most of Luke's escape plan, he still lies about the final part where Luke has run off to, and since everything else checks out, Mrs. Sigsby sees no reason to believe Avery has lied to her, until Frieda tells her the truth about Luke's location.
  • Trapped by Gambling Debts: Discussed; the Institute has a policy for its staff to be able to get loans at practically no interest to pay off debts, since people in debt can easily be tempted to sell secrets and thus expose the Institute.
  • Traumatic Superpower Awakening: Dunks in a water tank to the point of drowning increase children's powers. The sadism of the Institute staff ends up being their undoing, as dunking Avery as a punishment while disregarding this effect boosts his powers to the level that Avery can launch a breakout.
  • Troubling Unchildlike Behavior: Along with snacks and beverages, the Institute provides the children in Front Half with booze (albeit in small amounts) and cigarettes, with the mindset that considering what eventually happens to them, allowing them such vices isn't so bad.
  • Useless Security Camera: Luke notices that the security cameras in Front Half (especially in the rarely-used east wing) are so dirty they can, at best, only provide a blurry image, and none of the staff feels the need to clean them. Eventually, Mrs. Sigsby berates Stackhouse for the lack of maintenance, and he promises to instruct the janitor, but even then both know that their cameras, like many things in the Institute, are hopelessly outdated and in desperate need for repairs.
  • Van in Black:
    • Discussed, and averted during the scenes set in DuPray. Orphan Annie, a follower of conspiracy theories and one of the first to believe Luke, warns Tim that the people looking for Luke will come in black vans. However, the team send to retrieve Luke actually uses far more unobtrusive vans that are blue, green and gray. The narrative even lampshades that Annie would be disappointed if she saw this.
    • Later played straight with the van Tim, Luke, and Sigsby use to drive to the Institute, which is both black and has tinted windows. The narrative mentions that Orphan Annie would love it.
  • Villainous BSoD: Stackhouse gets hit with one after he sees the Institute being destroyed, and realizes just how powerful the kids truly were. He no longer bothers to try and stop Tim and Luke, or demand the flashdrive with the incriminating evidence Maureen had given Luke. He is also unable to answer when Tim asks Stackhouse where he will go now.
  • Water Torture: The immersion tank, which is used on pinks to enhance their powers, since near-death experiences can greatly boost their abilities. Luke is tortured in here to see if he really didn't develop any TP powers due to Dr. Hendricks' experiments. Later, Avery also gets the treatment as punishment for lying to Mrs. Sigsby about where Luke went after he escaped.
  • We Have Reserves: Pinks, like Luke, are considered expendable by the Institute since they are the most common form of TKs. Thus, they are reserved for extra experiments rather than just the ones necessary to prepare them for Back Half.
  • Would Harm a Child: Many members of the Institute have no problem slapping, zapping or otherwise hurting children who act out of line. At least one justifies it by being severely abused as a child, and enjoying being able to dole out the pain instead.
    She knew the kiddos called her Corinne the Slapper, and that was okay. She had been slapped plenty in the Reno trailer park where she had grown up, and the way she looked at it, what goes around comes around. Plus, it was for a good cause. What you called your basic win-win situation.
  • Your Days Are Numbered: The kids in Front Half know that the transition to Back Half is coming when they go for multiple days without any tests.